The Importance of the Family Meal

By: Colleen McCay, LCSW

Family_eating_mealThis article originally appeared as part of a series of newsletters for families during the Diocese’s celebration of the Year of the Family. For the complete newsletter and more information visit the Year of the Family website.

One thing I’ve learned while working with children and families through our School-Based Family Support program is that families are stressed. Parents work long hours, they worry about finances, and everyone’s schedule is filled with activities. One mother of students I work with even works three part-time jobs.

After meeting with this single mom, I learned that the kids are in before-care and after-care at school, and that often, they eat dinner in the car on their way to the mother’s third job, where the kids help her to clean offices. The stressful schedule was taking its toll.  The children’s grades suffered and the teachers started to notice behavior problems.

With so much going on, many families find it difficult to sit down to eat together, but the simple act of eating a family meal can have significant and far-reaching benefits for children. Particularly during the school-age years, the home and family must be lifted up as the place where a child feels safe, loved and accepted. Building in time for a family meal helps show them that the family is the place where they are wanted, honored, valued, and “enough,” just the way they are.

After meeting with the family who gobbled their meal in the car, I asked the mother whether it would be possible to carve out just ten minutes when they arrive at work in the evening to sit and eat together. Ten minutes of calm, ten minutes they could count on, when they can look at each other, talk and share food.

They tried it. While the family still has their stressors and things aren’t perfect at school, I began to receive fewer reports of behavior problems from the teachers.

Benefits of a Daily Meal

There are so many benefits to families who share a meal together. Here are just a few:

  • Children develop a sense of connection, belonging, and self-esteem when they are with a parent who is present and engaged. This relationship is critical during the tween years since kids will turn to the ones they are connected to when things get hard for them.
  • People make time for what is important to them. When families eat together, children get the message that family is important, and that they are important to the family.
  • Being with their family alleviates feelings of stress, anxiety and isolation that children may experience at school or in other social settings.
  • Kids at this age are notorious for not opening up to their parents. Just by being in their presence each day, parents can pick up on the things kids aren’t saying; the verbal and non-verbal cues they’re giving, their moods, their habits, and any warning signs of potential problems.
  • Family meals provide structure and consistency to everyone’s daily routine.
  • It is an opportunity for children to learn family history, what their parents’ day and life is like, and what the family’s values are.

A daily family meal doesn’t have to be anything fancy. There doesn’t have to be a set table or elaborately cooked food. All it needs to be is consistent—and family-centered.

Colleen McCay is a licensed clinical social worker with Catholic Charities’ School-Based Family Support program, which counsels at-risk students in schools within the Diocese of Camden. To learn more about the program and other counseling services, visit their website.

Tips for Family Meal Time

  • Make the mealtime consistent and sacred. If family mealtime is an everyday occurrence and is not optional for anyone, your children won’t see it as a burden or an obligation. It will simply become a part of their daily routine.
  • Get your children involved in the meal process. Children can set the table or help prepare simple foods.
  • Have each child share something about their day. It’s important that each person at the table has the opportunity to share. Consider using ice breakers, such as asking for the best and worst parts of the day. Ask someone to tell a joke they like, etc. Parents must also participate. Make it fun!
  • Focus on one another and not on the food. Avoid making family mealtime a chore where children are pressured to “clean their plates.” By putting the focus on ‘finishing’ everything on the plate, parents are not allowing children to trust their own sense of being satiated. Food and mealtime can then be viewed as a pressure-filled event.
  • On the weekends when there is more time, consider making mealtime longer and more special. Get the kids more involved or prepare food they’ll look forward to. Don’t eat in front of the TV. It is so easy to tune out and disconnect. It is about building connections, and forming a lasting bond.
  • Be present to one another. Pay attention to what your children say. Really listen. It’s amazing what you will learn.